Chennai gets a dance school that’s exclusive to the trans community

Art is for all. Taking a step in making that a reality, a Bharatanatyam dance school — exclusively for members of the transgender community — was opened in Chennai recently. Classes are held every Sunday, and dance enthusiasts can learn the art form free of cost. When we landed at the venue, we spotted a group of students discussing the mudras and the steps they learned since the school became operational this month. One of them, who had arrived early, asked, “Why haven’t the others come yet?” A second person replied, “We can’t force anyone to come. They need to be passionate.” But within minutes, the dance school was brimming with students eager to learn Bharatanatyam.

“We have 15-20 students enrolled with us now. Most of them are working, but they take out time for the classes because of their interest in dance. Master Shanmuga Sundaram, one of India’s leading Bharatanatyam dancers, is teaching them,” transgender activist Kalaimamani Sudha told us. The dance school is a joint initiative of Kerala-based Sri Sathya Sai Orphanage Trust and Sahodaran. “This is the first exclusive dance school for the transgender community in the state,” informed Sudha, adding, “We’re also ready to arrange classes in other districts if we have enough takers.”

Disha, an aspiring model, was interested in dance since her childhood. “My brothers played cricket, but I used to spend my time watching dance programs that were telecast on channels and dancing along,” Disha reminisced, “My parents would scold me, saying that dance was not for boys. I studied in a boys’ school, and I used to dance in front of 100-1,500 students during culturals. While I did get comments that shocked me, many people encouraged me to take up dance seriously as well. Though I continued to dance in college and at my workplace as well, it’s only now that I’ve joined a formal class. I hope I learn dance professionally and help others learn as well.”

Among the students is Omana, who left her job to concentrate on dance. “Since childhood, I had been interested in Bharatanatyam, but I never got the time or opportunity to pursue it. I come from a poor family and this (attending dance classes) is a big deal for me,” she told us. “I used to watch songs on TV and replicate the steps. When I started working, I joined a dance class, but I couldn’t find time for both. So, I quit my job,” she beamed, adding, “To be here and learn the art form has made me happy. I want to pursue it seriously and one day, do my arangetram.”

Sharing his excitement at teaching an enthusiastic group of students, Shanmuga Sundaram said, “When I was approached to teach dance to the transgender community, I was really happy. Art is common for all. Here, I am their dance teacher and they are my students. I don’t see any other difference. On the first day, when I heard their stories,

I was inspired to know how many hurdles they have crossed to be here. This is a big chance for them because dance is an expensive art. I hope to bring them together for a stage performance.”

As the class progressed, some of the dancers got tired from all the practice, only to find encouragement from their fellow students and guru to keep doing their best. “Our master says that even those who take up dance in their childhood don’t pursue it with full interest, whereas we are here due to our passion. So, he is confident that we’ll be able to learn well,” Kayal said with a smile. Shanmuga Sundaram pitched in, “When it comes to art, there is no age limit. All that matters is your interest.”

Disha added, “We believe that learning a traditional art form like Bharatanatyam will help us progress in life. There is a perception that transgenders are known for vulgar dance performances, and we want to break that perception. Now, when we go to the class in traditional dance costumes, I feel that perception already changing.”

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